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Abbey Lincoln pictured from the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program

The Art & Awakening of Abbey Lincoln, Jazz Singer and Civil Rights Activist

Abbey Lincoln was a jazz singer, actress, and civil rights activist. In this interview from 2003, part of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, she talks about the profound ways that slavery has impacted her African American family and emphasizes the importance of her own freedom—socially, politically, and creatively.

She was born Anna Marie Wooldridge, but in the mid-1950s, one of her managers suggested she change it to Abbey Lincoln. “Like Abraham Lincoln,” she recalls him saying. “Since Abraham Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, maybe you can handle it.”

Abbey Lincoln was a jazz singer, not a politician, but in this 2003 interview, part of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, she discusses her political awakening and the importance of art and music in her life.

I think of myself as the lioness, the sign I was born under, and the lion will eat you and will get you.

Lincoln grew up in Michigan, the granddaughter of enslaved African Americans. When her grandmother was freed in 1865, the man who enslaved her “sent her out of the house with a dime and a couple of blankets,” Lincoln says. Her grandparents lived in abandoned streetcars, and the family worried that her grandfather’s violence was a trauma response to the horrors of enslavement.

Lincoln struggled in school. She found that jazz music offered her the space and freedom to be fully herself. “There is no such thing as jazz,” she says. “There’s only a song and your spirit and your ancestors.” Lincoln used the stage as a platform to sing about the struggles that Black people faced. That passion for justice, she says, turned her singing into art:

“I, Abbey Lincoln, sing about what is most important to me, and what is most important to me is being free of the shackles that chain me in every walk of life that I live. If this were not so, I would still be a supper club singer.”

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